This etext was prepared by Donald Lainson, email@example.com.
by E. F. Benson
Though there was nothing visibly graceful about Michael Comber, he apparently had the art of giving gracefully. He had already told his cousin Francis, who sat on the arm of the sofa by his table, that there was no earthly excuse for his having run into debt; but now when the moment came for giving, he wrote the cheque quickly and eagerly, as if thoroughly enjoying it, and passed it over to him with a smile that was extraordinarily pleasant.
“There you are, then, Francis,” he said; “and I take it from you that that will put you perfectly square again. You’ve got to write to me, remember, in two days’ time, saying that you have paid those bills. And for the rest, I’m delighted that you told me about it. In fact, I should have been rather hurt if you hadn’t.”
Francis apparently had the art of accepting gracefully, which is more difficult than the feat which Michael had so successfully accomplished.
“Mike, you’re a brick,” he said. “But then you always are a brick. Thanks awfully.”
Michael got up, and shuffled rather than walked across the room to the bell by the fireplace. As long as he was sitting down his big arms and broad shoulders gave the impression of strength, and you would have expected to find when he got up that he was tall and largely made. But when he rose the extreme shortness of his legs manifested itself, and he appeared almost deformed. His hands hung nearly to his knees; he was heavy, short, lumpish.
“But it’s more blessed to give than to receive, Francis,” he said. “I have the best of you there.”
“Well, it’s pretty blessed to receive when you are in a tight place, as I was,” he said, laughing. “And I am so grateful.”
“Yes, I know you are. And it’s that which makes me feel rather cheap, because I don’t miss what I’ve given you. But that’s distinctly not a reason for your doing it again. You’ll have tea, won’t you?”
“Why, yes,” said Francis, getting up, also, and leaning his elbow on the chimney-piece, which was nearly on a level with the top of Michael’s head. And if Michael had gracefulness only in the art of giving, Francis’s gracefulness in receiving was clearly of a piece with the rest of him. He was tall, slim and alert, with the quick, soft movements of some wild animal. His face, brown with sunburn and pink with brisk-going blood, was exceedingly handsome in a boyish and almost effeminate manner, and though he was only eighteen months younger than his cousin, he looked as if nine or ten years might have divided their ages.
“But you are a brick, Mike,” he said again, laying his long, brown hand on his cousin’s shoulder. “I can’t help saying it twice.”
“Twice more than was necessary,” said Michael, finally dismissing the subject.
The room where they sat was in Michael’s flat in Half Moon Street, and high up in one of those tall, discreet-looking houses. The windows were wide open on this hot July afternoon, and the bourdon hum of London, where Piccadilly poured by at the street end, came in blended and blunted by distance, but with the suggestion of heat, of movement, of hurrying affairs. The room was very empty of furniture; there was a rug or two on the parquet floor, a long, low bookcase taking up the end near the door, a table, a sofa, three or four chairs, and a piano. Everything was plain, but equally obviously everything was expensive, and the general impression given was that the owner had no desire to be surrounded by things he did not want, but insisted on the superlative quality of the things he did. The rugs, for instance, happened to be of silk, the bookcase happened to be Hepplewhite, the piano bore the most eminent of makers’ names. There were three mezzotints on the walls, a dragon’s-blood vase on the high, carved chimney-piece; the whole bore the unmistakable stamp of a fine, individual taste.
“But there’s something else I want to talk to you about, Francis,” said Michael, as presently afterwards they sat over their tea. “I can’t say that I exactly want your advice, but I should like your opinion. I’ve done something, in fact, without asking anybody, but now that it’s done I should like to know what you think about it.”
“That’s you all over, Michael,” he said. “You always do a thing first, if you really mean to do it–which I suppose is moral courage–and then you go anxiously round afterwards to see if other people approve, which I am afraid looks like moral cowardice. I go on a different plan altogether. I ascertain the opinion of so many people before I do anything that I end by forgetting what I wanted to do. At least, that seems a reasonable explanation for the fact that I so seldom do anything.”
Michael looked affectionately at the handsome boy who lounged long- legged in the chair opposite him. Like many very shy persons, he had one friend with whom he was completely unreserved, and that was this cousin of his, for whose charm and insouciant brilliance he had so adoring an admiration.
He pointed a broad, big finger at him.
“Yes, but when you are like that,” he said, “you can just float along. Other people float you. But I should sink heavily if I did nothing. I’ve got to swim all the time.”
“Well, you are in the army,” said Francis. “That’s as much swimming as anyone expects of a fellow who has expectations. In fact, it’s I who have to swim all the time, if you come to think of it. You are somebody; I’m not!”
Michael sat up and took a cigarette.
“But I’m not in the army any longer,” he said. “That’s just what I am wanting to tell you.”
“What do you mean?” he asked. “Have you been cashiered or shot or something?”
“I mean that I wrote and resigned my commission yesterday,” said Michael. “If you had dined with me last night–as, by the way, you promised to do–I should have told you then.”
Francis got up and leaned against the chimney-piece. He was conscious of not thinking this abrupt news as important as he felt he ought to think it. That was characteristic of him; he floated, as Michael had lately told him, finding the world an extremely pleasant place, full of warm currents that took you gently forward without entailing the slightest exertion. But Michael’s grave and expectant face–that Michael who had been so eagerly kind about meeting his debts for him–warned him that, however gossamer-like his own emotions were, he must attempt to ballast himself over this.
“Are you speaking seriously?” he asked.
“Quite seriously. I never did anything that was so serious.”
“And that is what you want my opinion about?” he asked. “If so, you must tell me more, Mike. I can’t have an opinion unless you give me the reasons why you did it. The thing itself–well, the thing itself doesn’t seem to matter so immensely. The significance of it is why you did it.”
Michael’s big, heavy-browed face lightened a moment. “For a fellow who never thinks,” he said, “you think uncommonly well. But the reasons are obvious enough. You can guess sufficient reasons to account for it.”
“Let’s hear them anyhow,” said Francis.
Michael clouded again.
“Surely they are obvious,” he said. “No one knows better than me, unless it is you, that I’m not like the rest of you. My mind isn’t the build of a guardsman’s mind, any more than my unfortunate body is. Half our work, as you know quite well, consists in being pleasant and in liking it. Well, I’m not pleasant. I’m not breezy and cordial. I can’t do it. I make a task of what is a pastime to all of you, and I only shuffle through my task. I’m not popular, I’m not liked. It’s no earthly use saying I am. I don’t like the life; it seems to me senseless. And those who live it don’t like me. They think me heavy–just heavy. And I have enough sensitiveness to know it.”
Michael need not have stated his reasons, for his cousin could certainly have guessed them; he could, too, have confessed to the truth of them. Michael had not the light hand, which is so necessary when young men work together in a companionship of which the cordiality is an essential part of the work; neither had he in the social side of life that particular and inimitable sort of easy self-confidence which, as he had said just now, enables its owner to float. Except in years he was not young; he could not manage to be “clubable”; he was serious and awkward at a supper party; he was altogether without the effervescence which is necessary in order to avoid flatness. He did his work also in the same conscientious but leaden way; officers and men alike felt it. All this Francis knew perfectly well; but instead of acknowledging it, he tried quite fruitlessly to smooth it over.
“Aren’t you exaggerating?” he asked.
Michael shook his head.
“Oh, don’t tone it down, Francis!” he said. “Even if I was exaggerating–which I don’t for a moment admit–the effect on my general efficiency would be the same. I think what I say is true.”
Francis became more practical.
“But you’ve only been in the regiment three years,” he said. “It won’t be very popular resigning after only three years.”
“I have nothing much to lose on the score of popularity,” remarked Michael.
There was nothing pertinent that could be consoling here.
“And have you told your father?” asked Francis. “Does Uncle Robert know?”
“Yes; I wrote to father this morning, and I’m going down to Ashbridge to-morrow. I shall be very sorry if he disapproves.”
“Then you’ll be sorry,” said Francis.
“I know, but it won’t make any difference to my action. After all, I’m twenty-five; if I can’t begin to manage my life now, you may be sure I never shall. But I know I’m right. I would bet on my infallibility. At present I’ve only told you half my reasons for resigning, and already you agree with me.”
Francis did not contradict this.
“Let’s hear the rest, then,” he said.
“You shall. The rest is far more important, and rather resembles a sermon.”
Francis appropriately sat down again.
“Well, it’s this,” said Michael. “I’m twenty-five, and it is time that I began trying to be what perhaps I may be able to be, instead of not trying very much–because it’s hopeless–to be what I can’t be. I’m going to study music. I believe that I could perhaps do something there, and in any case I love it more than anything else. And if you love a thing, you have certainly a better chance of succeeding in it than in something that you don’t love at all. I was stuck into the army for no reason except that soldiering is among the few employments which it is considered proper for fellows in my position–good Lord! how awful it sounds!–proper for me to adopt. The other things that were open were that I should be a sailor or a member of Parliament. But the soldier was what father chose. I looked round the picture gallery at home the other day; there are twelve Lord Ashbridges in uniform. So, as I shall be Lord Ashbridge when father dies, I was stuck into uniform too, to be the ill-starred thirteenth. But what has it all come to? If you think of it, when did the majority of them wear their smart uniforms? Chiefly when they went on peaceful parades or to court balls, or to the Sir Joshua Reynolds of the period to be painted. They’ve been tin soldiers, Francis! You’re a tin soldier, and I’ve just ceased to be a tin soldier. If there was the smallest chance of being useful in the army, by which I mean standing up and being shot at because I am English, I would not dream of throwing it up. But there’s no such chance.”
Michael paused a moment in his sermon, and beat out the ashes from his pipe against the grate.
“Anyhow the chance is too remote,” he said. “All the nations with armies and navies are too much afraid of each other to do more than growl. Also I happen to want to do something different with my life, and you can’t do anything unless you believe in what you are doing. I want to leave behind me something more than the portrait of a tin soldier in the dining-room at Ashbridge. After all, isn’t an artistic profession the greatest there is? For what counts, what is of value in the world to-day? Greek statues, the Italian pictures, the symphonies of Beethoven, the plays of Shakespeare. The people who have made beautiful things are they who are the benefactors of mankind. At least, so the people who love beautiful things think.”
Francis glanced at his cousin. He knew this interesting vital side of Michael; he was aware, too, that had anybody except himself been in the room, Michael could not have shown it. Perhaps there might be people to whom he could show it but certainly they were not those among whom Michael’s life was passed.
“Go on,” he said encouragingly. “You’re ripping, Mike.”
“Well, the nuisance of it is that the things I am ripping about appear to father to be a sort of indoor game. It’s all right to play the piano, if it’s too wet to play golf. You can amuse yourself with painting if there aren’t any pheasants to shoot. In fact, he will think that my wanting to become a musician is much the same thing as if I wanted to become a billiard-marker. And if he and I talked about it till we were a hundred years old, he could never possibly appreciate my point of view.”
Michael got up and began walking up and down the room with his slow, ponderous movement.
“Francis, it’s a thousand pities that you and I can’t change places,” he said. “You are exactly the son father would like to have, and I should so much prefer being his nephew. However, you come next; that’s one comfort.”
He paused a moment.
“You see, the fact is that he doesn’t like me,” he said. “He has no sympathy whatever with my tastes, nor with what I am. I’m an awful trial to him, and I don’t see how to help it. It’s pure waste of time, my going on in the Guards. I do it badly, and I hate it. Now, you’re made for it; you’re that sort, and that sort is my father’s sort. But I’m not; no one knows that better than myself. Then there’s the question of marriage, too.”
Michael gave a mirthless laugh.
“I’m twenty-five, you see,” he said, “and it’s the family custom for the eldest son to marry at twenty-five, just as he’s baptised when he’s a certain number of weeks old, and confirmed when he is fifteen. It’s part of the family plan, and the Medes and Persians aren’t in it when the family plan is in question. Then, again, the lucky young woman has to be suitable; that is to say, she must be what my father calls ‘one of us.’ How I loathe that phrase! So my mother has a list of the suitable, and they come down to Ashbridge in gloomy succession, and she and I are sent out to play golf together or go on the river. And when, to our unutterable relief, that is over, we hurry back to the house, and I escape to my piano, and she goes and flirts with you, if you are there. Don’t deny it. And then another one comes, and she is drearier than the last–at least, I am.”
Francis lay back and laughed at this dismal picture of the rejection of the fittest.
“But you’re so confoundedly hard to please, Mike,” he said. “There was an awfully nice girl down at Ashbridge at Easter when I was there, who was simply pining to take you. I’ve forgotten her name.”
Michael clicked his fingers in a summary manner.
“There you are!” he said. “You and she flirted all the time, and three months afterwards you don’t even remember her name. If you had only been me, you would have married her. As it was, she and I bored each other stiff. There’s an irony for you! But as for pining, I ask you whether any girl in her senses could pine for me. Look at me, and tell me! Or rather, don’t look at me; I can’t bear to be looked at.”
Here was one of Michael’s morbid sensitivenesses. He seldom forgot his own physical appearance, the fact of which was to him appalling. His stumpy figure with its big body, his broad, blunt- featured face, his long arms, his large hands and feet, his clumsiness in movement were to him of the nature of a constant nightmare, and it was only with Francis and the ease that his solitary presence gave, or when he was occupied with music that he wholly lost his self-consciousness in this respect. It seemed to him that he must be as repulsive to others as he was to himself, which was a distorted view of the case. Plain without doubt he was, and of heavy and ungainly build; but his belief in the finality of his uncouthness was morbid and imaginary, and half his inability to get on with his fellows, no less than with the maidens who were brought down in single file to Ashbridge, was due to this. He knew very well how light-heartedly they escaped to the geniality and attractiveness of Francis, and in the clutch of his own introspective temperament he could not free himself from the handicap of his own sensitiveness, and, like others, take himself for granted. He crushed his own power to please by the weight of his judgments on himself.
“So there’s another reason to complain of the irony of fate,” he said. “I don’t want to marry anybody, and God knows nobody wants to marry me. But, then, it’s my duty to become the father of another Lord Ashbridge, as if there had not been enough of them already, and his mother must be a certain kind of girl, with whom I have nothing in common. So I say that if only we could have changed places, you would have filled my niche so perfectly, and I should have been free to bury myself in Leipzig or Munich, and lived like the grub I certainly am, and have drowned myself in a sea of music. As it is, goodness knows what my father will say to the letter I wrote him yesterday, which he will have received this morning. However, that will soon be patent, for I go down there to-morrow. I wish you were coming with me. Can’t you manage to for a day or two, and help things along? Aunt Barbara will be there.”
Francis consulted a small, green morocco pocket-book.
“Can’t to-morrow,” he said, “nor yet the day after. But perhaps I could get a few days’ leave next week.”
“Next week’s no use. I go to Baireuth next week.”
“Baireuth? Who’s Baireuth?” asked Francis.
“Oh, a man I know. His other name was Wagner, and he wrote some tunes.”
“Oh, but I’ve heard of him,” he said. “They’re rather long tunes, aren’t they? At least I found them so when I went to the opera the other night. Go on with your plans, Mike. What do you mean to do after that?”
“Go on to Munich and hear the same tunes over, again. After that I shall come back and settle down in town and study.”
“Play the piano?” asked Francis, amiably trying to enter into his cousin’s schemes.
“No doubt that will come into it,” he said. “But it’s rather as if you told somebody you were a soldier, and he said: ‘Oh, is that quick march?'”
“So it is. Soldiering largely consists of quick march, especially when it’s more than usually hot.”
“Well, I shall learn to play the piano,” said Michael.
“But you play so rippingly already,” said Francis cordially. “You played all those songs the other night which you had never seen before. If you can do that, there is nothing more you want to learn with the piano, is there?”
“You are talking rather as father will talk,” observed Michael.
“Am I? Well, I seem to be talking sense.”
“You weren’t doing what you seemed, then. I’ve got absolutely everything to learn about the piano.”
“Then it is clear I don’t understand anything about it,” he said. “Nor, I suppose, does Uncle Robert. But, really, I rather envy you, Mike. Anyhow, you want to do and be something so much that you are gaily going to face unpleasantnesses with Uncle Robert about it. Now, I wouldn’t face unpleasantnesses with anybody about anything I wanted to do, and I suppose the reason must be that I don’t want to do anything enough.”
“The malady of not wanting,” quoted Michael.
“Yes, I’ve got that malady. The ordinary things that one naturally does are all so pleasant, and take all the time there is, that I don’t want anything particular, especially now that you’ve been such a brick–“
“Stop it,” said Michael.
“Right; I got it in rather cleverly. I was saying that it must be rather nice to want a thing so much that you’ll go through a lot to get it. Most fellows aren’t like that.”
“A good many fellows are jelly-fish,” observed Michael.
“I suppose so. I’m one, you know. I drift and float. But I don’t think I sting. What are you doing to-night, by the way?”
“Playing the piano, I hope. Why?”
“Only that two fellows are dining with me, and I thought perhaps you would come. Aunt Barbara sent me the ticket for a box at the Gaiety, too, and we might look in there. Then there’s a dance somewhere.”
“Thanks very much, but I think I won’t,” said Michael. “I’m rather looking forward to an evening alone.”
“And that’s an odd thing to look forward to,” remarked Francis.
“Not when you want to play the piano. I shall have a chop here at eight, and probably thump away till midnight.”
Francis looked round for his hat and stick.
“I must go,” he said. “I ought to have gone long ago, but I didn’t want to. The malady came in again. Most of the world have got it, you know, Michael.”
Michael rose and stood by his tall cousin.
“I think we English have got it,” he said. “At least, the English you and I know have got it. But I don’t believe the Germans, for instance, have. They’re in deadly earnest about all sorts of things–music among them, which is the point that concerns me. The music of the world is German, you know!”
Francis demurred to this.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” he said. “This thing at the Gaiety is ripping, I believe. Do come and see.”
Michael resisted this chance of revising his opinion about the German origin of music, and Francis drifted out into Piccadilly. It was already getting on for seven o’clock, and the roadway and pavements were full of people who seemed rather to contradict Michael’s theory that the nation generally suffered from the malady of not wanting, so eagerly and numerously were they on the quest for amusement. Already the street was a mass of taxicabs and private motors containing, each one of them, men and women in evening dress, hurrying out to dine before the theatre or the opera. Bright, eager faces peered out, with sheen of silk and glitter of gems; they all seemed alert and prosperous and keen for the daily hours of evening entertainment. A crowd similar in spirit pervaded the pavements, white-shirted men with coat on arm stepped in and out of swinging club doors and the example set by the leisured class seemed copiously copied by those whom desks and shops had made prisoners all day. The air of the whole town, swarming with the nation that is supposed to make so grave an affair of its amusements, was indescribably gay and lighthearted; the whole city seemed set on enjoying itself. The buses that boomed along were packed inside and out, and each was placarded with advertisement of some popular piece at theatre or music-hall. Inside the Green Park the grass was populous with lounging figures, who, unable to pay for indoor entertainment, were making the most of what the coolness of sunset and grass supplied them with gratis; the newsboards of itinerant sellers contained nothing of more serious import than the result of cricket matches; and, as the dusk began to fall, street lamps and signs were lit, like early rising stars, so that no hint of the gathering night should be permitted to intrude on the perpetually illuminated city. All that was sordid and sad, all that was busy (except on these gay errands of pleasure) was shuffled away out of sight, so that the pleasure seekers might be excused for believing that there was nothing in the world that could demand their attention except the need of amusing themselves successfully. The workers toiled in order that when the working day was over the fruits of their labour might yield a harvest of a few hours’ enjoyment; silkworms had spun so that from carriage windows might glimmer the wrappings made from their cocoons; divers had been imperilled in deep seas so that the pearls they had won might embellish the necks of these fair wearers.
To Francis this all seemed very natural and proper, part of the recognised order of things that made up the series of sensations known to him as life. He did not, as he had said, very particularly care about anything, and it was undoubtedly true that there was no motive or conscious purpose in his life for which he would voluntarily have undergone any important stress of discomfort or annoyance. It was true that in pursuance of his profession there was a certain amount of “quick marching” and drill to be done in the heat, but that was incidental to the fact that he was in the Guards, and more than compensated for by the pleasures that were also naturally incidental to it. He would have been quite unable to think of anything that he would sooner do than what he did; and he had sufficient of the ingrained human tendency to do something of the sort, which was a matter of routine rather than effort, than have nothing whatever, except the gratification of momentary whims, to fill his day. Besides, it was one of the conventions or even conditions of life that every boy on leaving school “did” something for a certain number of years. Some went into business in order to acquire the wealth that should procure them leisure; some, like himself, became soldiers or sailors, not because they liked guns and ships, but because to boys of a certain class these professions supplied honourable employment and a pleasant time. Without being in any way slack in his regimental duties, he performed them as many others did, without the smallest grain of passion, and without any imaginative forecast as to what fruit, if any, there might be to these hours spent in drill and discipline. He was but one of a very large number who do their work without seriously bothering their heads about its possible meaning or application. His particular job gave a young man a pleasant position and an easy path to general popularity, given that he was willing to be sociable and amused. He was extremely ready to be both the one and the other, and there his philosophy of life stopped.
And, indeed, it seemed on this hot July evening that the streets were populated by philosophers like unto himself. Never had England generally been more prosperous, more secure, more comfortable. The heavens of international politics were as serene as the evening sky; not yet was the storm-cloud that hung over Ireland bigger than a man’s hand; east, west, north and south there brooded the peace of the close of a halcyon day, and the amazing doings of the Suffragettes but added a slight incentive to the perusal of the morning paper. The arts flourished, harvests prospered; the world like a newly-wound clock seemed to be in for a spell of serene and orderly ticking, with an occasional chime just to show how the hours were passing.
London was an extraordinarily pleasant place, people were friendly, amusements beckoned on all sides; and for Francis, as for so many others, but a very moderate amount of work was necessary to win him an approved place in the scheme of things, a seat in the slow- wheeling sunshine. It really was not necessary to want, above all to undergo annoyances for the sake of what you wanted, since so many pleasurable distractions, enough to fill day and night twice over, were so richly spread around.
Some day he supposed he would marry, settle down and become in time one of those men who presented a bald head in a club window to the gaze of passers-by. It was difficult, perhaps, to see how you could enjoy yourself or lead a life that paid its own way in pleasure at the age of forty, but that he trusted that he would learn in time. At present it was sufficient to know that in half an hour two excellent friends would come to dinner, and that they would proceed in a spirit of amiable content to the Gaiety. After that there was a ball somewhere (he had forgotten where, but one of the others would be sure to know), and to-morrow and to-morrow would be like unto to-day. It was idle to ask questions of oneself when all went so well; the time for asking questions was when there was matter for complaint, and with him assuredly there was none. The advantages of being twenty-three years old, gay and good- looking, without a care in the world, now that he had Michael’s cheque in his pocket, needed no comment, still less complaint. He, like the crowd who had sufficient to pay for a six-penny seat at a music-hall, was perfectly content with life in general; to-morrow would be time enough to do a little more work and glean a little more pleasure.
It was indeed an admirable England, where it was not necessary even to desire, for there were so many things, bright, cheerful things to distract the mind from desire. It was a day of dozing in the sun, like the submerged, scattered units or duets on the grass of the Green Park, of behaving like the lilies of the field. . . . Francis found he was rather late, and proceeded hastily to his mother’s house in Savile Row to array himself, if not “like one of these,” like an exceedingly well-dressed young man, who demanded of his tailor the utmost of his art; with the prospect, owing to Michael’s generosity, of being paid to-morrow.
Michael, when his cousin had left him, did not at once proceed to his evening by himself with his piano, though an hour before he had longed to be alone with it and a pianoforte arrangement of the Meistersingers, of which he had promised himself a complete perusal that evening. But Francis’s visit had already distracted him, and he found now that Francis’s departure took him even farther away from his designed evening. Francis, with his good looks and his gay spirits, his easy friendships and perfect content (except when a small matter of deficit and dunning letters obscured the sunlight for a moment), was exactly all that he would have wished to be himself. But the moment he formulated that wish in his mind, he knew that he would not voluntarily have parted with one atom of his own individuality in order to be Francis or anybody else. He was aware how easy and pleasant life would become if he could look on it with Francis’s eyes, and if the world would look on him as it looked on his cousin. There would be no more bother. . . . In a moment, he would, by this exchange, have parted with his own unhappy temperament, his own deplorable body, and have stepped into an amiable and prosperous little neutral kingdom that had no desires and no regrets. He would have been free from all wants, except such as could be gratified so easily by a little work and a great capacity for being amused; he would have found himself excellently fitting the niche into which the rulers of birth and death had placed him: an eldest son of a great territorial magnate, who had what was called a stake in the country, and desired nothing better.
Willingly, as he had said, would he have changed circumstances with Francis, but he knew that he would not, for any bait the world could draw in front of him, have changed natures with him, even when, to all appearance, the gain would so vastly have been on his side. It was better to want and to miss than to be content. Even at this moment, when Francis had taken the sunshine out of the room with his departure, Michael clung to his own gloom and his own uncouthness, if by getting rid of them he would also have been obliged to get rid of his own temperament, unhappy as it was, but yet capable of strong desire. He did not want to be content; he wanted to see always ahead of him a golden mist, through which the shadows of unconjecturable shapes appeared. He was willing and eager to get lost, if only he might go wandering on, groping with his big hands, stumbling with his clumsy feet, desiring . . .
There are the indications of a path visible to all who desire. Michael knew that his path, the way that seemed to lead in the direction of the ultimate goal, was music. There, somehow, in that direction lay his destiny; that was the route. He was not like the majority of his sex and years, who weave their physical and mental dreams in the loom of a girl’s face, in her glance, in the curves of her mouth. Deliberately, owing chiefly to his morbid consciousness of his own physical defects, he had long been accustomed to check the instincts natural to a young man in this regard. He had seen too often the facility with which others, more fortunate than he, get delightedly lost in that golden haze; he had experienced too often the absence of attractiveness in himself. How could any girl of the London ballroom, he had so frequently asked himself, tolerate dancing or sitting out with him when there was Francis, and a hundred others like him, so pleased to take his place? Nor, so he told himself, was his mind one whit more apt than his body. It did not move lightly and agreeably with unconscious smiles and easy laughter. By nature he was monkish, he was celibate. He could but cease to burn incense at such ineffectual altars, and help, as he had helped this afternoon, to replenish the censers of more fortunate acolytes.
This was all familiar to him; it passed through his head unbidden, when Francis had left him, like the refrain of some well-known song, occurring spontaneously without need of an effort of memory. It was a possession of his, known by heart, and it no longer, except for momentary twinges, had any bitterness for him. This afternoon, it is true, there had been one such, when Francis, gleeful with his cheque, had gone out to his dinner and his theatre and his dance, inviting him cheerfully to all of them. In just that had been the bitterness–namely, that Francis had so overflowing a well-spring of content that he could be cordial in bidding him cast a certain gloom over these entertainments. Michael knew, quite unerringly, that Francis and his friends would not enjoy themselves quite so much if he was with them; there would be the restraint of polite conversation at dinner instead of completely idle babble, there would be less outspoken normality at the Gaiety, a little more decorum about the whole of the boyish proceedings. He knew all that so well, so terribly well. . . .
His servant had come in with the evening paper, and the implied suggestion of the propriety of going to dress before he roused himself. He decided not to dress, as he was going to spend the evening alone, and, instead, he seated himself at the piano with his copy of the Meistersingers and, mechanically at first, with the ragged cloud-fleeces of his reverie hanging about his brain, banged away at the overture. He had extraordinary dexterity of finger for one who had had so little training, and his hands, with their great stretch, made light work of octaves and even tenths. His knowledge of the music enabled him to wake the singing bird of memory in his head, and before long flute and horn and string and woodwind began to make themselves heard in his inner ear. Twice his servant came in to tell him that his dinner was ready, but Michael had no heed for anything but the sounds which his flying fingers suggested to him. Francis, his father, his own failure in the life that had been thrust on him were all gone; he was with the singers of Nuremberg.
The River Ashe, after a drowsy and meandering childhood, passed peacefully among the sedges and marigolds of its water meadows, suddenly and somewhat disconcertingly grows up and, without any period of transition and adolescence, becomes, from being a mere girl of a rivulet, a male and full-blooded estuary of the sea. At Coton, for instance, the tips of the sculls of a sauntering pleasure-boat will almost span its entire width, while, but a mile farther down, you will see stone-laden barges and tall, red-winged sailing craft coming up with the tide, and making fast to the grey wooden quay wall of Ashbridge, rough with barnacles. For the reeds and meadow-sweet of its margin are exchanged the brown and green growths of the sea, with their sharp, acrid odour instead of the damp, fresh smell of meadow flowers, and at low tide the podded bladders of brown weed and long strings of marine macaroni, among which peevish crabs scuttle sideways, take the place of the grass and spires of loosestrife; and over the water, instead of singing larks, hang white companies of chiding seagulls. Here at high tide extends a sheet of water large enough, when the wind blows up the estuary, to breed waves that break in foam and spray against the barges, while at the ebb acres of mud flats are disclosed on which the boats lean slanting till the flood lifts them again and makes them strain at the wheezing ropes that tie them to the quay.
A year before the flame of war went roaring through Europe in unquenchable conflagration it would have seemed that nothing could possibly rouse Ashbridge from its red-brick Georgian repose. There was never a town so inimitably drowsy or so sternly uncompetitive. A hundred years ago it must have presented almost precisely the same appearance as it did in the summer of 1913, if we leave out of reckoning a few dozen of modern upstart villas that line its outskirts, and the very inconspicuous railway station that hides itself behind the warehouses near the river’s bank. Most of the trains, too, quite ignore its existence, and pass through it on their way to more rewarding stopping-places, hardly recognising it even by a spurt of steam from their whistles, and it is only if you travel by those that require the most frequent pauses in their progress that you will be enabled to alight at its thin and depopulated platform.
Just outside the station there perennially waits a low-roofed and sanguine omnibus that under daily discouragement continues to hope that in the long-delayed fulness of time somebody will want to be driven somewhere. (This nobody ever does, since the distance to any house is so small, and a porter follows with luggage on a barrow.) It carries on its floor a quantity of fresh straw, in the manner of the stage coaches, in which the problematic passenger, should he ever appear, will no doubt bury his feet. On its side, just below the window that is not made to open, it carries the legend that shows that it belongs to the Comber Arms, a hostelry so self-effacing that it is discoverable only by the sharpest-eyed of pilgrims. Narrow roadways, flanked by proportionately narrower pavements, lie ribbon-like between huddled shops and squarely- spacious Georgian houses; and an air of leisure and content, amounting almost to stupefaction, is the moral atmosphere of the place.
On the outskirts of the town, crowning the gentle hills that lie to the north and west, villas in acre plots, belonging to business men in the county town some ten miles distant, “prick their Cockney ears” and are strangely at variance with the sober gravity of the indigenous houses. So, too, are the manners and customs of their owners, who go to Stoneborough every morning to their work, and return by the train that brings them home in time for dinner. They do other exotic and unsuitable things also, like driving swiftly about in motors, in playing golf on the other side of the river at Coton, and in having parties at each other’s houses. But apart from them nobody ever seems to leave Ashbridge (though a stroll to the station about the time that the evening train arrives is a recognised diversion) or, in consequence, ever to come back. Ashbridge, in fact, is self-contained, and desires neither to meddle with others nor to be meddled with.
The estuary opposite the town is some quarter of a mile broad at high tide, and in order to cross to the other side, where lie the woods and park of Ashbridge House, it is necessary to shout and make staccato prancings in order to attract the attention of the antique ferryman, who is invariably at the other side of the river and generally asleep at the bottom of his boat. If you are strong- lunged and can prance and shout for a long time, he may eventually stagger to his feet, come across for you and row you over. Otherwise you will stand but little chance of arousing him from his slumbers, and you will stop where you are, unless you choose to walk round by the bridge at Coton, a mile above.
Periodical attempts are made by the brisker inhabitants of Ashbridge, who do not understand its spirit, to substitute for this aged and ineffectual Charon someone who is occasionally awake, but nothing ever results from these revolutionary moves, and the requests addressed to the town council on the subject are never heard of again. “Old George” was ferryman there before any members of the town council were born, and he seems to have established a right to go to sleep on the other side of the river which is now inalienable from him. Besides, asleep or awake, he is always perfectly sober, which, after all, is really one of the first requirements for a suitable ferryman. Even the representations of Lord Ashbridge himself who, when in residence, frequently has occasion to use the ferry when crossing from his house to the town, failed to produce the smallest effect, and he was compelled to build a boathouse of his own on the farther bank, and be paddled across by himself or one of the servants. Often he rowed himself, for he used to be a fine oarsman, and it was good for the lounger on the quay to see the foaming prow of his vigorous progress and the dignity of physical toil.
In all other respects, except in this case of “Old George,” Lord Ashbridge’s wishes were law to the local authorities, for in this tranquil East-coast district the spirit of the feudal system with a beneficent lord and contented tenants strongly survived. It had triumphed even over such modern innovations as railroads, for Lord Ashbridge had the undoubted right to stop any train he pleased by signal at Ashbridge station. This he certainly enjoyed doing; it fed his sense of the fitness of things to progress along the platform with his genial, important tiptoe walk, and elbows squarely stuck out, to the carriage that was at once reserved for him, to touch the brim of his grey top-hat (if travelling up to town) to the obsequious guard, and to observe the heads of passengers who wondered why their express was arrested, thrust out of carriage windows to look at him. A livened footman, as well as a valet, followed him, bearing a coat and a rug and a morning or evening paper and a dispatch-box with a large gilt coronet on it, and bestowed these solaces to a railway journey on the empty seats near him. And not only his sense of fitness was hereby fed, but that also of the station-master and the solitary porter and the newsboy, and such inhabitants of Ashbridge as happened to have strolled on to the platform. For he was THEIR Earl of Ashbridge, kind, courteous and dominant, a local king; it was all very pleasant.
But this arrest of express trains was a strictly personal privilege; when Lady Ashbridge or Michael travelled they always went in the slow train to Stoneborough, changed there and abided their time on the platform like ordinary mortals. Though he could undoubtedly have extended his rights to the stopping of a train for his wife or son, he wisely reserved this for himself, lest it should lose prestige. There was sufficient glory already (to probe his mind to the bottom) for Lady Ashbridge in being his wife; it was sufficient also for Michael that he was his son.
It may be inferred that there was a touch of pomposity about this admirable gentleman, who was so excellent a landlord and so hard working a member of the British aristocracy. But pomposity would be far too superficial a word to apply to him; it would not adequately connote his deep-abiding and essential conviction that on one of the days of Creation (that, probably, on which the decree was made that there should be Light) there leaped into being the great landowners of England.
But Lord Ashbridge, though himself a peer, by no means accepted the peerage en bloc as representing the English aristocracy; to be, in his phrase, “one of us” implied that you belonged to certain well- ascertained families where brewers and distinguished soldiers had no place, unless it was theirs already. He was ready to pay all reasonable homage to those who were distinguished by their abilities, their riches, their exalted positions in Church and State, but his homage to such was transfused with a courteous condescension, and he only treated as his equals and really revered those who belonged to the families that were “one of us.”
His wife, of course, was “one of us,” since he would never have permitted himself to be allied to a woman who was not, though for beauty and wisdom she might have been Aphrodite and Athene rolled compactly into one peerless identity. As a matter of fact, Lady Ashbridge had not the faintest resemblance to either of these effulgent goddesses. In person she resembled a camel, long and lean, with a drooping mouth and tired, patient eyes, while in mind she was stunned. No idea other than an obvious one ever had birth behind her high, smooth forehead, and she habitually brought conversation to a close by the dry enunciation of something indubitably true, which had no direct relation to the point under discussion. But she had faint, ineradicable prejudices, and instincts not quite dormant. There was a large quantity of mild affection in her nature, the quality of which may be illustrated by the fact that when her father died she cried a little every day after breakfast for about six weeks. Then she did not cry any more. It was impossible not to like what there was of her, but there was really very little to like, for she belonged heart and soul to the generation and the breeding among which it is enough for a woman to be a lady, and visit the keeper’s wife when she has a baby.
But though there was so little of her, the balance was made up for by the fact that there was so much of her husband. His large, rather flamboyant person, his big white face and curling brown beard, his loud voice and his falsetto laugh, his absolutely certain opinions, above all the fervency of his consciousness of being Lord Ashbridge and all which that implied, completely filled any place he happened to be in, so that a room empty except for him gave the impression of being almost uncomfortably crowded. This keen consciousness of his identity was naturally sufficient to make him very good humoured, since he was himself a fine example of the type that he admired most. Probably only two persons in the world had the power of causing him annoyance, but both of these, by an irony of fate that it seemed scarcely possible to consider accidental, were closely connected with him, for one was his sister, the other his only son.
The grounds of their potentiality in this respect can be easily stated. Barbara Comber, his sister (and so “one of us”), had married an extremely wealthy American, who, in Lord Ashbridge’s view, could not be considered one of anybody at all; in other words, his imagination failed to picture a whole class of people who resembled Anthony Jerome. He had hoped when his sister announced her intention of taking this deplorable step that his future brother-in-law would at any rate prove to be a snob–he had a vague notion that all Americans were snobs–and that thus Mr. Jerome would have the saving grace to admire and toady him. But Mr. Jerome showed no signs of doing anything of the sort; he treated him with an austere and distant politeness that Lord Ashbridge could not construe as being founded on admiration and a sense of his own inferiority, for it was so clearly founded on dislike. That, however, did not annoy Lord Ashbridge, for it was easy to suppose that poor Mr. Jerome knew no better. But Barbara annoyed him, for not only had she shown herself a renegade in marrying a man who was not “one of us,” but with all the advantages she had enjoyed since birth of knowing what “we” were, she gloried in her new relations, saying, without any proper reticence about the matter, that they were Real People, whose character and wits vastly transcended anything that Combers had to show.
Michael was an even more vexatious case, and in moments of depression his father thought that he would really turn in his grave at the dismal idea of Michael having stepped into his honourable shoes. Physically he was utterly unlike a Comber, and his mind, his general attitude towards life seemed to have diverged even farther from that healthy and unreflective pattern. Only this morning his father had received a letter from him that summed Michael up, that fulfilled all the doubts and fears that had hung about him; for after three years in the Guards he had, without consultation with anybody, resigned his commission on the inexplicable grounds that he wanted to do something with his life. To begin with that was rankly heretical; if you were a Comber there was no need to do anything with your life; life did everything for you. . . . And what this un-Comberish young man wanted to do with his life was to be a musician. That musicians, artists, actors, had a right to exist Lord Ashbridge did not question. They were no doubt (or might be) very excellent people in their way, and as a matter of fact he often recognised their existence by going to the opera, to the private view of the Academy, or to the play, and he took a very considerable pride of proprietorship in his own admirable collection of family portraits. But then those were pictures of Combers; Reynolds and Romney and the rest of them had enjoyed the privilege of perpetuating on their canvases these big, fine men and charming women. But that a Comber–and that one positively the next Lord Ashbridge–should intend to devote his energies to an artistic calling, and allude to that scheme as doing something with his life, was a thing as unthinkable as if the butler had developed a fixed idea that he was “one of us.”
The blow was a recent one; Michael’s letter had only reached his father this morning, and at the present moment Lord Ashbridge was attempting over a cup of tea on the long south terrace overlooking the estuary to convey–not very successfully–to his wife something of his feelings on the subject. She, according to her custom, was drinking a little hot water herself, and providing her Chinese pug with a mixture of cream and crumbled rusks. Though the dog was of undoubtedly high lineage, Lord Ashbridge rather detested her.
“A musical career!” he exclaimed, referring to Michael’s letter. “What sort of a career for a Comber is a musical career? I shall tell Michael pretty roundly when he arrives this evening what I think of it all. We shall have Francis next saying that he wants to resign, too, and become a dentist.”
Lady Ashbridge considered this for a moment in her stunned mind.
“Dear me, Robert, I hope not,” she said. “I do not think it the least likely that Francis would do anything of the kind. Look, Petsy is better; she has drunk her cream and rusks quite up. I think it was only the heat.”
He gave a little good-humoured giggle of falsetto laughter.
“I wish, Marion,” he said, “that you could manage to take your mind off your dog for a moment and attend to me. And I must really ask you not to give your Petsy any more cream, or she will certainly be sick.”
Lady Ashbridge gave a little sigh.
“All gone, Petsy,” she said.
“I am glad it has all gone,” said he, “and we will hope it won’t return. But about Michael now!”
Lady Ashbridge pulled herself together.
“Yes, poor Michael!” she said. “He is coming to-night, is he not? But just now you were speaking of Francis, and the fear of his wanting to be a dentist!”
“Well, I am now speaking of Michael’s wanting to be a musician. Of course that is utterly out of the question. If, as he says, he has sent in his resignation, he will just have to beg them to cancel it. Michael seems not to have the slightest idea of the duties which his birth and position entail on him. Unfitted for the life he now leads . . . waste of time. . . . Instead he proposes to go to Baireuth in August, and then to settle down in London to study!”
Lady Ashbridge recollected the almanac.
“That will be in September, then,” she said. “I do not think I was ever in London in September. I did not know that anybody was.”
“The point, my dear, is not how or where you have been accustomed to spend your Septembers,” said her husband. “What we are talking about is–“
“Yes, dear, I know quite well what we are talking about,” said she. “We are talking about Michael not studying music all September.”
Lord Ashbridge got up and began walking across the terrace opposite the tea-table with his elbows stuck out and his feet lifted rather high.
“Michael doesn’t seem to realise that he is not Tom or Dick or Harry,” said he. “Music, indeed! I’m musical myself; all we Combers are musical. But Michael is my only son, and it really distresses me to see how little sense he has of his responsibilities. Amusements are all very well; it is not that I want to cut him off his amusements, but when it comes to a career–“
Lady Ashbridge was surreptitiously engaged in pouring out a little more cream for Petsy, and her husband, turning rather sooner than she had expected, caught her in the act.
“Do not give Petsy any more cream,” he said, with some asperity; “I absolutely forbid it.”
Lady Ashbridge quite composedly replaced the cream-jug.
“Poor Petsy!” she observed.
“I ask you to attend to me, Marion,” he said.
“But I am attending to you very well, Robert,” said she, “and I understand you perfectly. You do not want Michael to be a musician in September and wear long hair and perhaps play at concerts. I am sure I quite agree with you, for such a thing would be as unheard of in my family as in yours. But how do you propose to stop it?”
“I shall use my authority,” he said, stepping a little higher.
“Yes, dear, I am sure you will. But what will happen if Michael doesn’t pay any attention to your authority? You will be worse off than ever. Poor Michael is very obedient when he is told to do anything he intends to do, but when he doesn’t agree it is difficult to do anything with him. And, you see, he is quite independent of you with my mother having left him so much money. Poor mamma!”
Lord Ashbridge felt strongly about this.
“It was a most extraordinary disposition of her property for your mother to make,” he observed. “It has given Michael an independence which I much deplore. And she did it in direct opposition to my wishes.”
This touched on one of the questions about which Lady Ashbridge had her convictions. She had a mild but unalterable opinion that when anybody died, all that they had previously done became absolutely flawless and laudable.
“Mamma did as she thought right with her property,” she said, “and it is not for us to question it. She was conscientiousness itself. You will have to excuse my listening to any criticism you may feel inclined to make about her, Robert.”
“Certainly, my dear. I only want you to listen to me about Michael. You agree with me on the impossibility of his adopting a musical career. I cannot, at present, think so ill of Michael as to suppose that he will defy our joint authority.”
“Michael has a great will of his own,” she remarked. “He gets that from you, Robert, though he gets his money from his grandmother.”
The futility of further discussion with his wife began to dawn on Lord Ashbridge, as it dawned on everybody who had the privilege of conversing with her. Her mind was a blind alley that led nowhere; it was clear that she had no idea to contribute to the subject except slightly pessimistic forebodings with which, unfortunately, he found himself secretly disposed to agree. He had always felt that Michael was an uncomfortable sort of boy; in other words, that he had the inconvenient habit of thinking things out for himself, instead of blindly accepting the conclusions of other people.
Much as Lord Ashbridge valued the sturdy independence of character which he himself enjoyed displaying, he appreciated it rather less highly when it was manifested by people who were not sensible enough to agree with him. He looked forward to Michael’s arrival that evening with the feeling that there was a rebellious standard hoisted against the calm blue of the evening sky, and remembering the advent of his sister he wondered whether she would not join the insurgent. Barbara Jerome, as has been remarked, often annoyed her brother; she also genially laughed at him; but Lord Ashbridge, partly from affection, partly from a loyal family sense of clanship, always expected his sister to spend a fortnight with him in August, and would have been much hurt had she refused to do so. Her husband, however, so far from spending a fortnight with his brother-in-law, never spent a minute in his presence if it could possibly be avoided, an arrangement which everybody concerned considered to be wise, and in the interests of cordiality.
“And Barbara comes this evening as well as Michael, does she not?” he said. “I hope she will not take Michael’s part in his absurd scheme.”
“I have given Barbara the blue room,” said Lady Ashbridge, after a little thought. “I am afraid she may bring her great dog with her. I hope he will not quarrel with Petsy. Petsy does not like other dogs.”
The day had been very hot, and Lord Ashbridge, not having taken any exercise, went off to have a round of golf with the professional of the links that lay not half a mile from the house. He considered exercise an essential part of the true Englishman’s daily curriculum, and as necessary a contribution to the traditional mode of life which made them all what they were–or should be–as a bath in the morning or attendance at church on Sunday. He did not care so much about playing golf with a casual friend, because the casual friend, as a rule, casually beat him–thus putting him in an un- English position–and preferred a game with this first-class professional whose duty it was–in complete violation of his capacities–to play just badly enough to be beaten towards the end of the round after an exciting match. It required a good deal of cleverness and self-control to accomplish this, for Lord Ashbridge was a notably puerile performer, but he generally managed it with tact and success, by dint of missing absurdly easy putts, and (here his skill came in) by pulling and slicing his ball into far-distant bunkers. Throughout the game it was his business to keep up a running fire of admiring ejaculations such as “Well driven, my lord,” or “A fine putt, my lord. Ah! dear me, I wish I could putt like that,” though occasionally his chorus of praise betrayed him into error, and from habit he found himself saying: “Good shot, my lord,” when my lord had just made an egregious mess of things. But on the whole he devised so pleasantly sycophantic an atmosphere as to procure a substantial tip for himself, and to make Lord Ashbridge conscious of being a very superior performer. Whether at the bottom of his heart he knew he could not play at all, he probably did not inquire; the result of his matches and his opponent’s skilfully-showered praise was sufficient for him. So now he left the discouraging companionship of his wife and Petsy and walked swingingly across the garden and the park to the links, there to seek in Macpherson’s applause the self-confidence that would enable him to encounter his republican sister and his musical son with an unyielding front.
His spirits mounted rapidly as he went. It pleased him to go jauntily across the lawn and reflect that all this smooth turf was his, to look at the wealth of well-tended flowers in his garden and know that all this polychromatic loveliness was bred in Lord Ashbridge’s borders (and was graciously thrown open to the gaze of the admiring public on Sunday afternoon, when they were begged to keep off the grass), and that Lord Ashbridge was himself. He liked reminding himself that the towering elms drew their leafy verdure from Lord Ashbridge’s soil; that the rows of hen-coops in the park, populous and cheeping with infant pheasants, belonged to the same fortunate gentleman who in November would so unerringly shoot them down as they rocketted swiftly over the highest of his tree-tops; that to him also appertained the long-fronted Jacobean house which stood so commandingly upon the hill-top, and glowed with all the mellowness of its three-hundred-years-old bricks. And his satisfaction was not wholly fatuous nor entirely personal; all these spacious dignities were insignia (temporarily conferred on him, like some order, and permanently conferred on his family) of the splendid political constitution under which England had made herself mistress of an empire and the seas that guarded it. Probably he would have been proud of belonging to that even if he had not been “one of us”; as it was, the high position which he occupied in it caused that pride to be slightly mixed with the pride that was concerned with the notion of the Empire belonging to him and his peers.
But though he was the most profound of Tories, he would truthfully have professed (as indeed he practised in the management of his estates) the most Liberal opinions as to schemes for the amelioration of the lower classes. Only, just as the music he was good enough to listen to had to be played for him, so the tenants and farmers had to be his dependents. He looked after them very well indeed, conceiving this to be the prime duty of a great landlord, but his interest in them was really proprietary. It was of his bounty, and of his complete knowledge of what his duties as “one of us” were, that he did so, and any legislation which compelled him to part with one pennyworth of his property for the sake of others less fortunate he resisted to the best of his ability as a theft of what was his. The country, in fact, if it went to the dogs (and certain recent legislation distinctly seemed to point kennelwards), would go to the dogs because ignorant politicians, who were most emphatically not “of us,” forced him and others like him to recognise the rights of dependents instead of trusting to their instinctive fitness to dispense benefits not as rights but as acts of grace. If England trusted to her aristocracy (to put the matter in a nutshell) all would be well with her in the future even as it had been in the past, but any attempt to curtail their splendours must inevitably detract from the prestige and magnificence of the Empire. . . . And he responded suitably to the obsequious salute of the professional, and remembered that the entire golf links were his property, and that the Club paid a merely nominal rental to him, just the tribute money of a penny which was due to Caesar.
For the next hour or two after her husband had left her, Lady Ashbridge occupied herself in the thoroughly lady-like pursuit of doing nothing whatever; she just existed in her comfortable chair, since Barbara might come any moment, and she would have to entertain her, which she frequently did unawares. But as Barbara continued not to come, she took up her perennial piece of needlework, feeling rather busy and pressed, and had hardly done so when her sister-in-law arrived.
She was preceded by an enormous stag-hound, who, having been shut up in her motor all the way from London, bounded delightedly, with the sense of young limbs released, on to the terrace, and made wild leaps in a circle round the horrified Petsy, who had just received a second saucerful of cream. Once he dashed in close, and with a single lick of his tongue swept the saucer dry of nutriment, and with hoarse barkings proceeded again to dance corybantically about, while Lady Ashbridge with faint cries of dismay waved her embroidery at him. Then, seeing his mistress coming out of the French window from the drawing-room, he bounded calf-like towards her, and Petsy, nearly sick with cream and horror, was gathered to Lady Ashbridge’s bosom.
“My dear Barbara,” she said, “how upsetting your dog is! Poor Petsy’s heart is beating terribly; she does not like dogs. But I am very pleased to see you, and I have given you the blue room.”
It was clearly suitable that Barbara Jerome should have a large dog, for both in mind and body she was on the large scale herself. She had a pleasant, high-coloured face, was very tall, enormously stout, and moved with great briskness and vigour. She had something to say on any subject that came on the board; and, what was less usual in these days of universal knowledge, there was invariably some point in what she said. She had, in the ordinary sense of the word, no manners at all, but essentially made up for this lack by her sincere and humourous kindliness. She saw with acute vividness the ludicrous side of everybody, herself included, and to her mind the arch-humourist of all was her brother, whom she was quite unable to take seriously. She dressed as if she had looted a milliner’s shop and had put on in a great hurry anything that came to hand. She towered over her sister-in-law as she kissed her, and Petsy, safe in her citadel, barked shrilly.
“My dear, which is the blue room?” she said. “I hope it is big enough for Og and me. Yes, that is Og, which is short for dog. He takes two mutton-chops for dinner, and a little something during the night if he feels disposed, because he is still growing. Tony drove down with me, and is in the car now. He would not come in for fear of seeing Robert, so I ventured to tell them to take him a cup of tea there, which he will drink with the blinds down, and then drive back to town again. He has been made American ambassador, by the way, and will go in to dinner before Robert. My dear, I can think of few things which Robert is less fitted to bear than that. However, we all have our crosses, even those of us who have our coronets also.”
Lady Ashbridge’s hospitable instincts asserted themselves. “But your husband must come in,” she said. “I will go and tell him. And Robert has gone to play golf.”
“I am quite sure Tony won’t come in,” she said. “I promised him he shouldn’t, and he only drove down with me on the express stipulation that no risks were to be run about his seeing Robert. We must take no chances, so let him have his tea quietly in the motor and then drive away again. And who else is there? Anybody? Michael?”
“Michael comes this evening.”
“I am glad; I am particularly fond of Michael. Also he will play to us after dinner, and though I don’t know one note from another, it will relieve me of sitting in a stately circle watching Robert cheat at patience. I always find the evenings here rather trying; they remind me of being in church. I feel as if I were part of a corporate body, which leads to misplaced decorum. Ah! there is the sound of Tony’s retreating motor; his strategic movement has come off. And now give me some news, if you can get in a word. Dear me, there is Robert coming back across the lawn. What a mercy that Tony did not leave the motor. Robert always walks as if he was dancing a minuet. Look, there is Og imitating him! Or is he stalking him, thinking he is an enemy. Og, come here!”
She whistled shrilly on her fingers, and rose to greet her brother, whom Og was still menacing, as he advanced towards her with staccato steps. Barbara, however, got between Og and his prey, and threw her parasol at him.
“My dear, how are you?” she said. “And how did the golf go? And did you beat the professional?”
He suspected flippancy here, and became markedly dignified.
“An excellent match,” he said, “and Macpherson tells me I played a very sound game. I am delighted to see you, Barbara. And did Michael come down with you?”
“No. I drove from town. It saves time, but not expense, with your awful trains.”
“And you are well, and Mr. Jerome?” he asked. He always called his brother-in-law Mr. Jerome, to indicate the gulf between them. Barbara gave a little spurt of laughter.
“Yes, his excellency is quite well,” she said. “You must call him excellency now, my dear.”
“Indeed! That is a great step.”
“Considering that Tony began as an office-boy. How richly rewarding you are, my dear. And shan’t I make an odd ambassadress! I haven’t been to a Court since the dark ages, when I went to those beloved States. We will practise after dinner, dear, and you and Marion shall be the King and Queen, and I will try to walk backwards without tumbling on my head. You will like being the King, Robert. And then we will be ourselves again, all except Og, who shall be Tony and shall go out of the room before you.”
He gave his treble little giggle, for on the whole it answered better not to be dignified with Barbara, whenever he could remember not to be; and Lady Ashbridge, still nursing Petsy, threw a bombshell of the obvious to explode the conversation.
“Og has two mutton-chops for his dinner,” she said, “and he is growing still. Fancy!”
Lord Ashbridge took a refreshing glance at the broad stretch of country that all belonged to him.
“I am rather glad to have this opportunity of talking to you, my dear Barbara,” he said, “before Michael comes.”
“His train gets in half an hour before dinner” said Lady Ashbridge. “He has to change at Stoneborough.”
“Quite so. I heard from Michael this morning, saying that he has resigned his commission in the Guards, and is going to take up music seriously.”
Barbara gave a delighted exclamation.
“But how perfectly splendid!” she said. “Fancy a Comber doing anything original! Michael and I are the only Combers who ever have, since Combers ‘arose from out the azure main’ in the year one. I married an American; that’s something, though it’s not up to Michael!”
“That is not quite my view of it,” said he. “As for its being original, it would be original enough if Marion eloped with a Patagonian.”
Lady Ashbridge let fall her embroidery at this monstrous suggestion.
“You are talking very wildly, Robert,” she said, in a pained voice.
“My dear, get on with your sacred carpet,” said he. “I am talking to Barbara. I have already ascertained your–your lack of views on the subject. I was saying, Barbara, that mere originality is not a merit.”
“No, you never said that,” remarked Lady Ashbridge.
“I should have if you had allowed me to. And as for your saying that he has done it, Barbara, that is very wide of the mark, and I intend shall continue to be so.”
“Dear great Bashaw, that is just what you said to me when I told you I was going to marry his Excellency. But I did. And I think it is a glorious move on Michael’s part. It requires brain to find out what you like, and character to go and do it. Combers haven’t got brains as a rule, you see. If they ever had any, they have degenerated into conservative instincts.”
He again refreshed himself with the landscape. The roofs of Ashbridge were visible in the clear sunset. . . . Ashbridge paid its rents with remarkable regularity.
“That may or may not be so,” he said, forgetting for a moment the danger of being dignified. “But Combers have position.”
Barbara controlled herself admirably. A slight tremor shook her, which he did not notice.
“Yes, dear,” she said. “I allow that Combers have had for many generations a sort of acquisitive cunning, for all we possess has come to us by exceedingly prudent marriages. They have also–I am an exception here–the gift of not saying very much, which certainly has an impressive effect, even when it arises from not having very much to say. They are sticky; they attract wealth, and they have the force called vis inertiae, which means that they invest their money prudently. You should hear Tony–well, perhaps you had better not hear Tony. But now here is Michael showing that he has got tastes. Can you wonder that I’m delighted? And not only has he got tastes, but he has the strength of character to back them. Michael, in the Guards too! It was a perfect farce, and he’s had the sense to see it. He hated his duties, and he hated his diversions. Now Francis–“
“I am afraid Michael has always been a little jealous of Francis,” remarked his father.
This roused Barbara; she spoke quite seriously:
“If you really think that, my dear,” she said, “you have the distinction of being the worst possible judge of character that the world has ever known. Michael might be jealous of anybody else, for the poor boy feels his physical awkwardness most sensitively, but Francis is just the one person he really worships. He would do anything in the world for him.”
The discussion with Barbara was being even more fruitless than that with his wife, and Lord Ashbridge rose.
“All I can do, then, is to ask you not to back Michael up,” he said.
“My dear, he won’t need backing up. He’s a match for you by himself. But if Michael, after thoroughly worsting you, asks me my opinion, I shall certainly give it him. But he won’t ask my opinion first. He will strew your limbs, Robert, over this delightful terrace.”
“Michael’s train is late,” said Lady Ashbridge, hearing the stable clock strike. “He should have been here before this.”
Barbara had still a word to say, and disregarded this quencher.
“But don’t think, Robert,” she said, “that because Michael resists your wishes and authority, he will be enjoying himself. He will hate doing it, but that will not stop him.”
Lord Ashbridge was not a bully; he had merely a profound sense of his own importance.
“We will see about resistance,” he said.
Barbara was not so successful on this occasion, and exploded loudly:
“You will, dear, indeed,” she said.
Michael meantime had been travelling down from London without perturbing himself over the scene with his father which he knew lay before him. This was quite characteristic of him; he had a singular command over his imagination when he had made up his mind to anything, and never indulged in the gratuitous pain of anticipation. Today he had an additional bulwark against such self-inflicted worries, for he had spent his last two hours in town at the vocal recital of a singer who a month before had stirred the critics into rhapsody over her gift of lyric song. Up till now he had had no opportunity of hearing her; and, with the panegyrics that had been showered on her in his mind, he had gone with the expectation of disappointment. But now, an hour afterwards, the wheels of the train sang her songs, and in the inward ear he could recapture, with the vividness of an hallucination, the timbre of that wonderful voice and also the sweet harmonies of the pianist who accompanied her.
The hall had been packed from end to end, and he had barely got to his seat, the only one vacant in the whole room, when Miss Sylvia Falbe appeared, followed at once by her accompanist, whose name occurred nowhere on the programme. Two neighbours, however, who chatted shrilly during the applause that greeted them, informed him that this was Hermann, “dear Hermann; there is no one like him!” But it occurred to Michael that the singer was like him, though she was fair and he dark. But his perception of either of them visually was but vague; he had come to hear and not to see. Neither she nor Hermann had any music with them, and Hermann just glanced at the programme, which he put down on the top of the piano, which, again unusually, was open. Then without pause they began the set of German songs–Brahms, Schubert, Schumann–with which the recital opened. And for one moment, before he lost himself in the ecstasy of hearing, Michael found himself registering the fact that Sylvia Falbe had one of the most charming faces he had ever seen. The next he was swallowed up in melody.
She had the ease of the consummate artist, and each note, like the gates of the New Jerusalem, was a pearl, round and smooth and luminous almost, so that it was as if many-coloured light came from her lips. Nor was that all; it seemed as if the accompaniment was made by the song itself, coming into life with the freshness of the dawn of its creation; it was impossible to believe that one mind directed the singer and another the pianist, and if the voice was an example of art in excelsis, not less exalted was the perfection of the player. Not for a moment through the song did he take his eyes off her; he looked at her with an intensity of gaze that seemed to be reading the emotion with which the lovely melody filled her. For herself, she looked straight out over the hall, with grey eyes half-closed, and mouth that in the pauses of her song was large and full-lipped, generously curving, and face that seemed lit with the light of the morning she sang of. She was the song; Michael thought of her as just that, and the pianist who watched and understood her so unerringly was the song, too. They had for him no identity of their own; they were as remote from everyday life as the mind of Schumann which they made so vivid. It was then that they existed.
The last song of the group she sang in English, for it was “Who is Sylvia?” There was a buzz of smiles and whispers among the front row in the pause before it, and regaining her own identity for a moment, she smiled at a group of her friends among whom clearly it was a cliche species of joke that she should ask who Sylvia was, and enumerate her merits, when all the time she was Sylvia. Michael felt rather impatient at this; she was not anybody just now but a singer. And then came the divine inevitable simplicity of perfect words and the melody preordained for them. The singer, as he knew, was German, but she had no trace of foreign accent. It seemed to him that this was just one miracle the more; she had become English because she was singing what Shakespeare wrote.
The next group, consisting of modern French songs, appeared to Michael utterly unworthy of the singer and the echoing piano. If you had it in you to give reality to great and simple things, it was surely a waste to concern yourself with these little morbid, melancholy manikins, these marionettes. But his emotions being unoccupied he attended more to the manner of the performance, and in especial to the marvellous technique, not so much of the singer, but of the pianist who caused the rain to fall and the waters reflect the toneless grey skies. He had never, even when listening to the great masters, heard so flawless a comprehension as this anonymous player, incidentally known as Hermann, exhibited. As far as mere manipulation went, it was, as might perhaps be expected, entirely effortless, but effortless no less was the understanding of the music. It happened. . . . It was like that.
All of this so filled Michael’s mind as he travelled down that evening to Ashbridge, that he scarcely remembered the errand on which he went, and when it occurred to him it instantly sank out of sight again, lost in the recollection of the music which he had heard to-day and which belonged to the art that claimed the allegiance of his soul. The rattle of the wheels was alchemised into song, and as with half-closed eyes he listened to it, there swam across it now the full face of the singer, now the profile of the pianist, that had stood out white and intent against the dark panelling behind his head. He had gleaned one fact at the box- office as he hurried out to catch his train: this Hermann was the singer’s brother, a teacher of the piano in London, and apparently highly thought of.
Michael’s train, as his mother had so infallibly pronounced, was late, and he had arrived only just in time to hurry to his room and dress quickly, in order not to add to his crimes the additional one of unpunctuality, for unpunctuality, so Lord Ashbridge held, was the politeness not only of kings, but of all who had any pretence to decent breeding. His father gave him a carefully-iced welcome, his mother the tip of her long, camel-like lips, and they waited solemnly for the appearance of Aunt Barbara, who, it would seem, had forfeited her claims to family by her marriage. A man-servant and a half looked after each of them at dinner, and the twelve Lord Ashbridges in uniform looked down from their illuminated frames on their degenerate descendant.
The only bright spot in this portentous banquet was Aunt Barbara, who had chosen that evening, with what intention may possibly be guessed, to put on an immense diamond tiara and a breastplate of rubies, while Og, after one futile attempt to play with the footmen, yielded himself up to the chilling atmosphere of good breeding, and ate his mutton-chops with great composure. But Aunt Barbara, fortified by her gems, ate an excellent dinner, and talked all the time with occasional bursts of unexplained laughter.
Afterwards, when Michael was left alone with his father, he found that his best efforts at conversation elicited only monosyllabic replies, and at last, in the despairing desire to bring things to a head, he asked him if he had received his letter. An affirmative monosyllable, followed by the hissing of Lord Ashbridge’s cigarette end as he dropped it into his coffee cup, answered him, and he perceived that the approaching storm was to be rendered duly impressive by the thundery stillness that preceded it. Then his father rose, and as he passed Michael, who held the door open for him, said:
“If you can spare the time, Michael, I would like to have a talk with you when your mother and aunt have gone to bed.”
That was not very long delayed; Michael imagined that Aunt Barbara must have had a hint, for before half-past ten she announced with a skilfully suppressed laugh that she was about to retire, and kissed Michael affectionately. Both her laugh and her salute were encouraging; he felt that he was being backed up. Then a procession of footmen came into the room bearing lemonade and soda water and whiskey and a plate of plain biscuits, and the moment after he was alone with his father.
Lord Ashbridge rose and walked, very tall and majestic, to the fireplace, where he stood for a moment with his back to his son. Then he turned round.
“Now about this nonsense of your resigning your commission, Michael,” he said. “I don’t propose to argue about it, and I am just going to tell you. If, as you have informed me, you have actually sent it in, you will write to-morrow with due apologies and ask that it may be withdrawn. I will see your letter before you send it.”
Michael had intended to be as quiet and respectful as possible, consistent with firmness, but a sentence here gave him a spasm of anger.
“I don’t know what you mean, sir,” he said, “by saying ‘if I have sent it in.’ You have received my letter in which I tell you that I have done so.”
Already, even at the first words, there was bad blood between them. Michael’s face had clouded with that gloom which his father would certainly call sulky, and for himself he resented the tone of Michael’s reply. To make matters worse he gave his little falsetto cackle, which no doubt was intended to convey the impression of confident good humour. But there was, it must be confessed, very little good humour about it, though he still felt no serious doubt about the result of this interview.
“I’m afraid, perhaps, then, that I did not take your letter quite seriously, my dear Michael,” he said, in the bantering tone that froze Michael’s cordiality completely up. “I glanced through it; I saw a lot of nonsense–or so it struck me–about your resigning your commission and studying music; I think you mentioned Baireuth, and settling down in London afterwards.”
“Yes. I said all that,” said Michael. “But you make a mistake if you do not see that it was written seriously.”
His father glanced across at him, where he sat with his heavy, plain face, his long arms and short legs, and the sight merely irritated him. With his passion for convention (and one of the most important conventions was that Combers should be fine, strapping, normal people) he hated the thought that it was his son who presented that appearance. And his son’s mind seemed to him at this moment as ungainly as his person. Again, very unwisely, he laughed, still thinking to carry this off by the high hand.
“Yes, but I can’t take that rubbish seriously,” he said. “I am asking your permission now to inquire, without any nonsense, into what you mean.”
Michael frowned. He felt the insincerity of his father’s laugh, and rebelled against the unfairness of it. The question, he knew well, was sarcastically asked, the flavour of irony in the “permission to inquire” was not there by accident. To speak like that implied contempt of his opposition; he felt that he was being treated like a child over some nursery rebellion, in which, subsequently, there is no real possibility of disobedience. He felt his anger rising in spite of himself.
“If you refer to it as rubbish, sir, there is the end of the matter.”
“Ah! I thought we should soon agree,” said Lord Ashbridge, chuckling.
“You mistake me,” said Michael. “There is the end of the matter, because I won’t discuss it any more, if you treat me like this. I will say good night, if you intend to persist in the idea that you can just brush my resolves away like that.”
This clearly took his father aback; it was a perfectly dignified and proper attitude to take in the face of ridicule, and Lord Ashbridge, though somewhat an adept at the art of self-deception– as, for instance, when he habitually beat the golf professional– could not disguise from himself that his policy had been to laugh and blow away Michael’s absurd ideas. But it was abundantly clear at this moment that this apparently easy operation was out of his reach.
He got up with more amenity in his manner than he had yet shown, and laid his hand on Michael’s shoulder as he stood in front of him, evidently quite prepared to go away.
“Come, my dear Michael. This won’t do,” he said. “I thought it best to treat your absurd schemes with a certain lightness, and I have only succeeded in irritating you.”
Michael was perfectly aware that he had scored. And as his object was to score he made another criticism.
“When you say ‘absurd schemes,’ sir,” he said, with quiet respect, “are you not still laughing at them?”
Lord Ashbridge again retreated strategically.
“Very well; I withdraw absurd,” he said. “Now sit down again, and we will talk. Tell me what is in your mind.”
Michael made a great effort with himself. He desired, in the secret, real Michael, to be reasonable and cordial, to behave filially, while all the time his nerves were on edge with his father’s ridicule, and with his instinctive knowledge of his father’s distaste for him.
“Well, it’s like this, father,” he said. “I’m doing no good as I am. I went into the Guards, as you know, because it was the right thing to do. A business man’s son is put into business for the same reason. And I’m not good at it.”
Michael paused a moment.
“My heart isn’t in it,” he said, “and I dislike it. It seems to me useless. We’re for show. And my heart is quite entirely in music. It’s the thing I care for more than anything else.”
Again he paused; all that came so easily to his tongue when he was speaking to Francis was congealed now when he felt the contempt with which, though unexpressed, he knew he inspired his father.
Lord Ashbridge waited with careful politeness, his eyes fixed on the ceiling, his large person completely filling his chair, just as his atmosphere filled the room. He said nothing at all until the silence rang in Michael’s ears.
“That is all I can tell you,” he said at length.
Lord Ashbridge carefully conveyed the ash from his cigarette to the fireplace before he spoke. He felt that the time had come for his most impressive effort.
“Very well, then, listen to me,” he said. “What you suffer from, Michael, is a mere want of self-confidence and from modesty. You don’t seem to grasp–I have often noticed this–who you are and what your importance is–an importance which everybody is willing to recognise if you will only assume it. You have the privileges of your position, which you don’t sufficiently value, but you have, also, the responsibilities of it, which I am afraid you are inclined to shirk. You haven’t got the large view; you haven’t the sense of patriotism. There are a great many things in my position– the position into which you will step–which I would much sooner be without. But we have received a tradition, and we are bound to hand it on intact. You may think that this has nothing to do with your being in the Guards, but it has. We”–and he seemed to swell a little–“we are bound in honour to take the lead in the service of our country, and we must do it whether we like it or not. We have to till, with our own efforts, ‘our goodly heritage.’ You have to learn the meaning of such words as patriotism, and caste, and duty.”
Lord Ashbridge thought that he was really putting this very well indeed, and he had the sustaining consciousness of sincerity. He entirely believed what he said, and felt that it must carry conviction to anyone who listened to it with anything like an open mind. The only thing that he did not allow for was that he personally immensely enjoyed his social and dominant position, thinking it indeed the only position which was really worth having. This naturally gave an aid to comprehension, and he did not take into account that Michael was not so blessed as he, and indeed lacked this very superior individual enlightenment. But his own words kindled the flame of this illumination, and without noticing the blank stolidity of Michael’s face he went on with gathering confidence:
“I am sure you are high-minded, my dear Michael,” he said. “And it is to your high-mindedness that I–yes, I don’t mind saying it– that I appeal. In a moment of unreflectiveness you have thrown overboard what I am sure is real to you, the sense, broadly speaking, that you are English and of the highest English class, and have intended to devote yourself to more selfish and pleasure- loving aims, and to dwell in a tinkle of pleasant sounds that please your ear; and I’m sure I don’t wonder, because, as your mother and I both know, you play charmingly. But I feel confident that your better mind does not really confuse the mere diversions of life with its serious issues.”
Michael suddenly rose to his feet.
“Father, I’m afraid this is no use at all,” he said. “All that I feel, and all that I can’t say, I know is unintelligible to you. You have called it rubbish once, and you think it is rubbish still.”
Lord Ashbridge’s eloquence was suddenly arrested. He had been cantering gleefully along, and had the very distinct impression of having run up against a stone wall. He dismounted, hurt, but in no way broken.
“I am anxious to understand you, Michael,” he said.
“Yes, father, but you don’t,” said he. “You have been explaining me all wrong. For instance, I don’t regard music as a diversion. That is the only explanation there is of me.”
“And as regards my wishes and my authority?” asked his father.
Michael squared his shoulders and his mind.
“I am exceedingly sorry to disappoint you in the matter of your wishes,” he said; “but in the matter of your authority I can’t recognise it when the question of my whole life is at stake. I know that I am your son, and I want to be dutiful, but I have my own individuality as well. That only recognises the authority of my own conscience.”
That seemed to Lord Ashbridge both tragic and ludicrous. Completely subservient himself to the conventions which he so much enjoyed, it was like the defiance of a child to say such things. He only just checked himself from laughing again.
“I refuse to take that answer from you,” he said.
“I have no other to give you,” said Michael. “But I should like to say once more that I am sorry to disobey your wishes.”
The repetition took away his desire to laugh. In fact, he could not have laughed.
“I don’t want to threaten you, Michael,” he said. “But you may know that I have a very free hand in the disposal of my property.”
“Is that a threat?” asked Michael.
“It is a hint.”
“Then, father, I can only say that I should be perfectly satisfied with anything you may do,” said Michael. “I wish you could leave everything you have to Francis. I tell you in all sincerity that I wish he had been my elder brother. You would have been far better pleased with him.”
Lord Ashbridge’s anger rose. He was naturally so self-complacent as to be seldom disposed to anger, but its rarity was not due to kindliness of nature.
“I have before now noticed your jealousy of your cousin,” he observed.
Michael’s face went white.
“That is infamous and untrue, father,” he said.
Lord Ashbridge turned on him.
“Apologise for that,” he said.
Michael looked up at his high towering without a tremor.
“I wait for the withdrawal of your accusation that I am jealous of Francis,” he replied.
There was a dead silence. Lord Ashbridge stood there in swollen and speechless indignation, and Michael faced him undismayed. . . . And then suddenly to the boy there came an impulse of pure pity for his father’s disappointment in having a son like himself. He saw with the candour which was so real a part of him how hopeless it must be, to a man of his father’s mind, to have a millstone like himself unalterably bound round his neck, fit to choke and drown him.
“Indeed, I am not jealous of Francis, father,” he said, “and I speak quite truthfully when I say how I sympathise with you in having a son like me. I don’t want to vex you. I want to make the best of myself.”
Lord Ashbridge stood looking exactly like his statue in the market- place at Ashbridge.
“If that is the case, Michael,” he said, “it is within your power. You will write the letter I spoke about.”
Michael paused a moment as if waiting for more. It did not seem to him possible that his appeal should bear no further fruit than that. But it was soon clear that there was no more to come.
“I will wish you good night, father,” he said.
Sunday was a day on which Lord Ashbridge was almost more himself than during the week, so shining and public an example did he become of the British nobleman. Instead of having breakfast, according to the middle-class custom, rather later than usual, that solid sausagy meal was half an hour earlier, so that all the servants, except those whose presence in the house was imperatively necessary for purposes of lunch, should go to church. Thus “Old George” and Lord Ashbridge’s private boat were exceedingly busy for the half-hour preceding church time, the last boat-load holding the family, whose arrival was the signal for service to begin. Lady Ashbridge, however, always went on earlier, for she presided at the organ with the long, camel-like back turned towards the congregation, and started playing a slow, melancholy voluntary when the boy who blew the bellows said to her in an ecclesiastical whisper: “His lordship has arrived, my lady.” Those of the household who could sing (singing being construed in the sense of making a loud and cheerful noise in the throat) clustered in the choir-pews near the organ, while the family sat in a large, square box, with a stove in the centre, amply supplied with prayer-books of the time when even Protestants might pray for Queen Caroline. Behind them, separated from the rest of the church by an ornamental ironwork grille, was the Comber chapel, in which antiquarians took nearly as much pleasure as Lord Ashbridge himself. Here reclined a glorious company of sixteenth century knights, with their honourable ladies at their sides, unyielding marble bolsters at their heads, and grotesque dogs at their feet. Later, when their peerage was conferred, they lost a little of their yeoman simplicity, and became peruked and robed and breeched; one, indeed, in the age of George III., who was blessed with poetical aspirations, appeared in bare feet and a Roman toga with a scroll of manuscript in his hand; while later again, mere tablets on the walls commemorated their almost uncanny virtues.
And just on the other side of the grille, but a step away, sat the present-day representatives of the line, while Lady Ashbridge finished the last bars of her voluntary, Lord Ashbridge himself and his sister, large and smart and comely, and Michael beside them, short and heavy, with his soul full of the aspirations his father neither could nor cared to understand. According to his invariable custom, Lord Ashbridge read the lessons in a loud, sonorous voice, his large, white hands grasping the wing-feathers of the brass eagle, and a great carnation in his buttonhole; and when the time came for the offertory he put a sovereign in the open plate himself, and proceeded with his minuet-like step to go round the church and collect the gifts of the encouraged congregation. He followed all the prayers in his book, he made the responses in a voice nearly as loud as that in which he read the lessons; he sang the hymns with a curious buzzing sound, and never for a moment did he lose sight of the fact that he was the head of the Comber family, doing his duty as the custom of the Combers was, and setting an example of godly piety. Afterwards, as usual, he would change his black coat, eat a good lunch, stroll round the gardens (for he had nothing to say to golf on Sunday), and in the evening the clergyman would dine with him, and would be requested to say grace both before and after the meal. He knew exactly the proper mode of passing the Sunday for the landlord on his country estate, and when Lord Ashbridge knew that a thing was proper he did it with invariable precision.
Michael, of course, was in disgrace; his father, pending some further course of action, neither spoke to him nor looked at him; indeed, it seemed doubtful whether he would hand him the offertory plate, and it was perhaps a pity that he unbent even to this extent, for Michael happened to have none of the symbols of thankfulness about his person, and he saw a slight quiver pass through Aunt Barbara’s hymn-book. After a rather portentous lunch, however, there came some relief, for his father did not ask his company on the usual Sunday afternoon stroll, and Aunt Barbara never walked at all unless she was obliged. In consequence, when the thunderstorm had stepped airily away across the park, Michael joined her on the terrace, with the intention of talking the situation over with her.
Aunt Barbara was perfectly willing to do this, and she opened the discussion very pleasantly with peals of laughter.
“My dear, I delight in you,” she said; “and altogether this is the most entertaining day I have ever spent here. Combers are supposed to be very serious, solid people, but for unconscious humour there isn’t a family in England or even in the States to compare with them. Our lunch just now; if you could put it into a satirical comedy called The Aristocracy it would make the fortune of any theatre.”
A dawning smile began to break through Michael’s tragedy face.
“I suppose it was rather funny,” he said. “But really I’m wretched about it, Aunt Barbara.”
“My dear, what is there to be wretched about? You might have been wretched if you had found you couldn’t stand up to your father, but I gather, though I know nothing directly, that you did. At least, your mother has said to me three times, twice on the way to church and once coming back: ‘Michael has vexed his father very much.’ And the offertory plate, my dear, and, as I was saying, lunch! I am in disgrace too, because I said perfectly plainly yesterday that